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The integrator, the Klu Klux Klan leader and the Iowa journalist who wrote a book about their lives


Courtney Crowder   | Des Moines Register

This story is about three men.

The first man is Douglas Autry, a country boy who shot kamikazes from a destroyer deck in World War II, returning home with his heart and mind opened to cultures and beliefs much different from the ones he left in the family hamlet of Benton County, Mississippi. Becoming the first Autry to graduate from college, Douglas went into education and began to slowly chip away at his separate-but-of-course-not-at-all-equal local school system.

For all his pushing against Jim Crow, Douglas would eventually land in a jail cell.

The second man is Everson Autry, Douglas’ uncle and Benton County’s Ku Klux Klan leader. A first-class drunk and the family ne'er-do-well, Everson and his know-nothing friends’ belief in holding the line on a “Southern Way of Life” would eventually put people like Douglas in jail cells.

And the third man is Jim Autry, Douglas’ cousin and Everson’s nephew. Jim moved to Des Moines in 1960, but his Mississippi-reared vowels still glide slowly, like warm honey left to drip from a spoon.

A former editor of Better Homes & Gardens, longtime president of Meredith magazines, and award-winning poet and author, Jim’s recently released book — “The White Man Who Stayed” — is about Douglas, his personal hero, and Everson, who is not. Jim is the Scout Finch of the story, chronicler of a life and time he remembers, but one he’s looking back on with recollections gleaned from new interviews.

Douglas is “that rare, Southern white person who consciously chose to stay in the South,” Jim said. “He came back, he fought the good fight all the way through, and a lot of people in the family thought he was on the wrong side of justice.” 

The book, Jim's 15th, is a "slice of life," a particular look at a man who "committed himself to working locally for the racial equality so long sought by the civil rights struggle," journalist and former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers writes in the foreword. Under Jim's "finely honed microscope," Moyers adds, Douglas' story "reveals a universe of reality."

That reality still lingers.

As Americans took to the streets this summer in a renewed movement for social change, Jim’s thoughts turned to Douglas, who, like so many of the marchers, was just an ordinary man who saw an injustice and decided to do his part in righting it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

“No person’s story begins and ends with him,” as Jim writes. “It starts generations before.”

Men bleed the same

Every Southern family’s story is tied to the Civil War and, consequently, to race, Jim writes in the early pages of “The White Man Who Stayed.”

The Autry clan’s tie is Jacob, Jim’s great-great-grandfather who fought under Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest — also the inaugural grand wizard of the KKK — until a bullet grazed his forehead, knocking him unconscious. The wound was superficial, but by the time Jacob woke up, both his horse and the army had moved on. He quit the war right then and there, and started the long walk home.

For many of Jacob’s descendants, passivity became their approach to race. "Don’t rock the boat" and "Leave politics to someone else" traded places as family directives, along with "Always be polite," of course.

“Southern families have this sort of affect of niceness,” Jim said.

“The family never was hostile. There were not great arguments in the family,” he said. “But everybody knew who believed what.”

Around many Southern tables were “fuzzy-haired liberals” like Jim who went north and came back only for big gatherings, and layabout drinkers like Everson who found an identity in hatred.

But there weren’t a plethora of white rural Mississippians who decided to put down roots and fight for institutional and interpersonal change like Douglas did, Jim said.

As a child, Douglas worked his family farm — pushing a plow long before he pushed envelopes. Raised in a house without electricity, the family drank water collected in a cistern, and the most adventure the young boys found out in the hills was “pushing an old car to its limits on the winding gravel roads,” Jim writes.

But then Douglas went to war. Stationed on a group of destroyers known as “the picket line,” a last defense against Japanese attack, Douglas would line up targets and shoot, even when at “times the sky was so full of Japanese aircraft it was like a beehive.”

Douglas was exposed to sailors of other races and religions at training camps, on the line and through other military ventures. Jim suspects his cousin came back in the early 1950s “enlightened” with the understanding that all men really did bleed the same way.  

Soon elected local superintendent of education, Douglas got a firsthand look at the deplorable state of the segregated county’s black schools. Cautiously, he started talking about moving resources and maybe even money to improve those classrooms. When he could, he dropped off old books that the local white schools were going to throw away.

At the same time, Douglas fell into the petty patronage traps that can plague small towns. A trusting guy, he gave work to his friends who skimmed a little here, a little there.

Without an education in the finer points of public budgets, he just moved money around instead of asking the school board. Mix that with a powerful scion wanting the superintendent’s office for himself, and Douglas left his flank open to attack.

“Nobody thought he’d get in trouble for awarding school bus maintenance contracts to friends, that had been done forever,” Jim said. “But it was the perfect setup for him to get in trouble.”

A state audit later found about $78,000 missing from the district's budget, resulting in two trials. A civil trial, brought by the state against Douglas and the school board to recover missing funds, found that nearly all of the money was misspent, not stolen, and the school board ultimately paid only for the cost of a trial.

In a subsequent criminal trial, Douglas faced an embezzlement charge for $636, the final sum investigators couldn't locate. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years in Mississippi’s notorious, maximum-security Parchman Farm prison.

This time when Douglas poked the beehive, he had been stung.

Feeling like you belong

Uncle Everson had gone to war in Europe about the time Douglas shipped off to the Pacific, though Everson rarely saw action. His wife, Alice, died of cancer soon after he returned, leaving him listless and depressed. He moved from job to job and woman to woman, never too far from a drink.  

“I think Everson felt like a black sheep. Consequently, he played that role,” Jim said, adding that when his uncle saw an opportunity to earn an identity through the Ku Klux Klan, he jumped at the chance to be known for something.

In the years Everson was a member, the local Klan took to threatening Douglas. They burned a cross on his front lawn, tried to force his wife off the road just outside town and Everson himself even blocked Douglas’ daughter from walking across the square, shouting epithets and telling her to be ashamed of her daddy as she tried to get away.

The harassment continued for years. Everson died in 1982, "hostile and bitter until the end," Jim said.

Douglas’ sentence was commuted after only 18 months. Although he rarely talked about prison, Jim said, “I think prison opened his eyes and intensified his sense of injustice that was inherent in the system.”

Douglas returned to Benton County, spending a few years working the family farm until he was hired to run Neighborhood Youth Corps, a federal program that reimbursed local employers for hiring “at-risk” youth, both white and Black.

As a condition of employment, the kids had to attend a series of classes, and Douglas offered only one session — making those lectures essentially the first integrated classes in the county.

A few years later, the governor granted him a full pardon. With his citizenship rights restored, Douglas decided to get back into his first love — public education. In 1975, he got a second chance at the superintendent job.

“With Mr. Autry in charge, you felt like you belonged,” one of his longtime Black colleagues said in the book.

When Douglas finally retired in 1988, school integration in America had reached its all-time high. He died in 1996, still living in Benton County.

The third man

When Jim moved to Des Moines, a man from that part of the deep South was a rarity, and he was always outed by his accent. It was the 1960s, the era of Freedom Riders and marches and people from the North traveling to the South to break down Jim Crow.

Once, a Meredith co-worker asked Jim for some contacts, people he could call in case of emergency while he registered voters in Mississippi. The local Southerner obliged.

But Jim couldn’t shake the memory of his cousin Douglas. If this co-worker wanted to help Black people, Jim thought, why didn’t he head over to Center Street — then the epicenter of Des Moines’ Black culture — and volunteer there?

“When I moved here, I was amazed at how segregated it was,” Jim said.

“And yet in the '60s they were quick to sign up and go down and register Black people to vote in Mississippi, which is good and noble work, but there’s work to be done here,” he said.

What separated Douglas and Everson was education, pure and simple, Jim tells me. But what divided Jim and Douglas was the courage to stay.

That American audacity to settle in place no matter the challenges, to take up arms against not just foreign invaders but morally corrupt mindsets, pervades Douglas' story — and Jim’s book.

And it’s a welcome reminder that history books tend to remember the few, those whose stories can be used emblematically to represent an entire group, an entire timespan.

In doing so, those tomes forget the ordinary people truly responsible for great social change — the people who didn’t come down just to march one weekend, bringing cameras and press in tow, but those who lived in that community and went to those schools and worked for their rights day in and day out. Those who persisted. 

Ever since a ragtag group of farmers decided to take arms against the world’s strongest military, the story of America has been in the power of average joes. In the dedication of people we’ll never know who paved the path others walked to justice. In the bravery of people who gave their lives so that others could live.

And in the fortitude of people who stayed.

The power of America will always be in the people like Douglas who fight the people like Everson — just as long as people like Jim keep thinking their stories are ones history ought to remember.

About the book

"The White Man Who Stayed" is by James A. Autry, Ice Cube Press, selling for $19.99. It's available at your local bookstore or on Amazon